After years of service in the U.S. Marines, Robert Tanner needed to release some steam.
The Toms River native was an infantryman with the Delta Company Outlaws and joined the Marine Corps on a difficult day — he reported to boot camp on Sept. 11, 2001.
After all he experienced, serving in Iraq and around the world, losing his brothers in battle, Tanner returned home and needed to find a way to cope with what he'd been through. So, on the advice of friends, he began writing.
"At first, I never thought it would actually help," said Tanner, 32, who still lives in Toms River with his wife. "But, as I began writing, I could feel a weight taken off my shoulder. Not only did it help me relieve the anxiety I was experiencing but it was great knowing that I was helping solidify the memory of my brothers, both past and present. I was giving us all a voice."
He started work on his book, "Memoirs of an Outlaw: Life in the Sandbox," in 2006. It recounts his time serving, and helps preserve the memories of those lost.
"I'm hoping that the book gives readers a better understanding of the sacrifices our service members make on a daily basis. So, in the end, I think it was beneficial for me but I'm hoping it helps many more," Tanner said.
"Most of that is due to me taking extended breaks in between writing because I didn't want to write about a particular memory or because life events took me away from it," Tanner said. "If it wasn't for my wife, family, and the fine men I served with, I probably never would have finished."
Tanner's first deployment came in 2002. It was supposed to be a "routine" mission. But, as the war on terror continued to ramp up, "it ended up being much more than that."
"We conducted peacekeeping operations in Kosovo and did training exercises in Djibouti and United Arab Emirates," Tanner said. "Right before we were to come home, the war in Iraq broke out and our unit was assigned to help with the assault force. By the time we made it into Iraq, much of the fighting had already subsided so our unit was left with security patrols and such."
A second deployment came in 2004, when his Delta Company Outlaws were sent to Fallujah. There, lives were lost. Reality hit.
"On a daily basis, we were getting shot at, mortared, or targeted by bombs but we all had a sense of invincibility. Our first fallen brothers brought us back down to earth. That's when we knew it was real and death could come at any moment," Tanner said. "Shortly after our first two brothers passed, a makeshift memorial was built on our camp and at the base of the memorial were two marble tiles with the names of the fallen written on them. Each night, for about a month or so, someone would go out a place a lit candle at its base. We would all visit the memorial and pay our respect."
Six more of his brothers would be lost in that deployment, meaning six more marble tiles were placed at the base of the memorial.
"That memorial formed a strong bond between us all. It came to represent our brotherhood," Tanner said. "It was truly a trying time for us all but we emerged victorious and became a tight-knit group of friends."
Tanner joined the Marine Corps in 2001 and arrived in South Carolina to begin boot camp on Sept. 11, 2001. Before enlisting, Tanner was a student at Rowan University. Though he was doing well in school, after his junior year, it was time for a change.
"One day during my summer break, my brother and I were discussing the military and it brought back memories from when I was a student at High School East. Up until my senior year, I had always dreamed of joining the Marine Corps but when I received acceptance letters to college, I chose college over service," he said.
From there, he saw a recruiter in town and after "considerable thought" decided to take on a new adventure.
"Of course, the day I happened to step foot on Parris Island was 9/11, so the adventure I so desperately sought was just around the corner," he said.
Tanner eventually did earn his bachelor’s degree from Rowan University after an honorable discharge from service. He went on to get a second degree from Full Sail University and a master’s from Georgian Court University. In his life as a civilian, he has worked as a contract specialist for the Army and a business systems analyst for the Department of Veteran Affairs.
The book, he hopes, will bring meaning to those who read it, as well as a better understanding of what life as a soldier is like.
"First, I truly hope they appreciate and come to understand the sacrifices our service members make on a daily basis. The book really goes into what daily life is all about, from combat to the loss of friends to the crazy things we did to kill time," Tanner said. "Second, and I know it sounds a bit cliche, but live each day as if it's your last. Make sure to tell your loved ones how much they mean to you on a daily basis. Refrain from letting anger overcome you. Avoid arguing over petty things. Make sure the last thing someone hears from you is something positive. Do all of this because one day things will come to an end. You want your last impression to be your best."